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Montana Rep. Zinke Now Appears Trump’s Pick to Lead Interior Department

President-elect Donald Trump reportedly plans to nominate Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) as secretary of the Department of Interior (DOI), marking the fourth time a supporter of the oil and gas industry has been selected for a top post by the incoming administration.

The Zinke pick follows announcements of Trump's decision to nominate ExxonMobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Zinke’s nomination was a surprise. Last week, Trump was reportedly ready to nominate Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), a five-term Republican and the highest-ranking woman in the GOP leadership, to head the DOI. Sources said some disagreements arose in the transition team and pointed to some political baggage that might have hindered her chances of confirmation.

Zinke was first elected to the House in 2014 and won a re-election bid this year. He was elected by his Republican colleagues to serve on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. He has been a supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline and voiced opposition to some of the regulations imposed on the oil and gas industry. On the other hand he has been a strong protector of public lands in the West.

Zinke earned a degree in geology from the University of Oregon in 1984 and joined the military two years later. He retired as a U.S. Navy SEAL commander in 2008.

Last month, Zinke criticized a final rule by the DOI's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) aimed at reducing natural gas venting and flaring from oil and gas operations on public and tribal lands.

"Clean air and clean water are absolute top priorities when we talk about responsible energy development, however the final rule issued by the Obama administration does nothing to further protect our resources," Zinke said at the time on the BLM issue. "Instead, the BLM has issued a duplicative and unnecessary rule against responsible oil and gas development in Montana and on sovereign tribal lands.

"This rule is a stark reminder that we need to invest in infrastructure projects like the Keystone [XL] pipeline, so we don't need to flare excess gas. Furthermore, new technology in oil and gas development has led to incredible reductions in emissions over the years. I trust Montana's energy workers to continue their good work and technological breakthroughs more than I trust unelected bureaucrats."

Zinke also applauded the passage of a $32 billion appropriations bill, to fund the DOI and other agencies, last July. The bill included a provision blocking the EPA from implementing a controversial rule to clarify the definition of what constitutes Waters of the United States, as well as new methane requirements and greenhouse gas regulations for new or existing power plants.

But Zinke has not always agreed with his Republican counterparts. Last June, he voted against a bill transferring ownership of up to 2 million acres of public lands owned by the U.S. Forest Service to state ownership. He also voted against the GOP leadership twice in 2015 -- opposing a budget in May because it included language that would have allowed for the sale of public lands, and supporting an amendment in July that would have prohibited the DOI from conducting large sales of public lands.

"I'm starting to wonder how many times I have to tell these guys in [the GOP] leadership I'm not going to allow Montana's public lands to be sold or given away," Zinke said after the vote last June. "The federal government needs to do a much better job of managing our resources, but the sale or transfer of our land is an extreme proposal and I won't tolerate it."

Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma told NGI’s Shale Daily that the organization was "very familiar" with Zinke. "He is a strong Westerner who understands natural resource and public lands issues," she said Wednesday. "I think he will be an asset to the DOI."

Sgamma said she didn't think past disagreements between Zinke and the GOP leadership on the issue of public lands would prevent him from doing a good job. "Western states have so much land tied up in federal lands. I think rectifying that situation is such a long-term goal, and there are many other more pressing issues right now before the DOI."

Conversely, Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams said environmentalists have "serious concerns" about Zinke, in particular for his support of logging, drilling and mining interests.

"While he has steered clear of efforts to sell off public lands and supported the Land and Water Conservation Fund, far more often Rep. Zinke has advanced policies that favor special interests," Williams said in a statement. "His overall record and the backdrop of cabinet nominations with close ties to the fossil fuel industry cause us grave concern.

"Rep. Zinke has refused to acknowledge that climate change is caused by fossil fuel emissions, while vocally opposing the Obama administration's efforts to reduce harmful methane emissions. In addition, he has fought efforts to reform coal and voted to scrap environmental safeguards related to logging efforts on national forests."

McMorris Rodgers bowed out with a posting to her Facebook page on Tuesday. "It was an honor to be invited to spend time with the President-elect and I'm energized more than ever to continue leading in Congress as we think big, reimagine this government and put people back at the center of it.”

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